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Outdoor workouts grow as gyms reopen in Tampa Bay

There are many local ways to get fit without going inside a gym. But are outdoor workouts that much safer?
From left: Anna Ehrlich of Seminole, Kady Cahill of Seminole, and Katina Cahill of Seminole participate in a low-impact aerobics class on May 18 in the parking lot of the Bardmoor YMCA in Largo.
From left: Anna Ehrlich of Seminole, Kady Cahill of Seminole, and Katina Cahill of Seminole participate in a low-impact aerobics class on May 18 in the parking lot of the Bardmoor YMCA in Largo. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published May 18, 2020
Updated May 19, 2020

LARGO — In the Bardmoor YMCA’s parking lot, fitness instructor Jill Lawrence greeted members for her 8 a.m. group exercise class.

“I haven’t seen you in so long,” she exclaimed from her microphone headset. A bouncy version of Elvis Presley’s Hound Dog played on a stereo system.

Twelve people showed up to the Largo fitness center on Monday morning for the low-impact class, despite the cloudy conditions that had already led to the cancellation of the cycling class that was set to follow. Participants spaced themselves apart, each person in a different parking space. Most didn’t wear masks.

Mother and daughter Katina and Kady Cahill bounced along to the music as the sky grew darker and heavier with rain clouds.

“It’s wonderful to get back in a routine,” Katina said. “It reminds you how important the social aspect of working out is.”

Barbara Ewert, of Seminole, participates in an outdoor class at the Bardmoor YMCA.
Barbara Ewert, of Seminole, participates in an outdoor class at the Bardmoor YMCA. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Gyms across Florida reopened Monday. The YMCA has been doing its outdoor classes since May 13, as part of a “phase zero” plan to prepare for reopening, said Tim Staley, chief operating officer of the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg.

Before DeSantis’ Friday announcement giving gyms the go-ahead to reopen, class sizes were limited to nine people plus an instructor, to heed CDC recommendations that discourage groups of 10 or more. But on Monday, local YMCAs were ready to move to the next phase: Outdoor class sizes were expanded to 15, and their indoor fitness centers were opened to groups of 25 people per hour.

Staley said they’ll continue to hold outdoor classes until June 1, while the center hosts daycare for 54 children of essential workers. Once fitness classes move back inside, they’ll be held in larger rooms to allow for social distancing. Staley said the safety of the YMCA’s members is a primary concern.

Beth Chernek, executive director of the Bardmoor YMCA, said that turnout for outdoor classes has been “great.” She said that most of the classes were full in the first week.

Monday’s class was cut short when lightning flashed across the lead-colored sky. Members dashed to their cars. "It was so good to see you!” one yelled.

Outdoor and online workouts cropped up around Tampa Bay while gyms were closed.

For coach Matt O’Brien of Tryumph Fitness and Nutrition, outdoor “pop up” workouts were initially just a placeholder until gyms reopened.

Limited to nine members, a trainer leads strength and high-intensity interval workouts at various parks around Seminole and Largo. Members sign up on the gym’s app and stay six feet apart. O’Brien said people love the workouts, and some have even found a new appreciation for nature. Members of the gym can also follow along at home, online.

Even though he plans to reopen the gym, O’Brien said he will continue both the outdoor pop-ups and the online engagement to meet every member’s comfort level. Some are not ready to go back into a gym environment.

Tryumph Fitness and Nutrition in Largo, set up for social distancing when they reopen. The gym had pop-up outdoor group workouts while they were closed.
Tryumph Fitness and Nutrition in Largo, set up for social distancing when they reopen. The gym had pop-up outdoor group workouts while they were closed. [ Courtesy of Matt O'Brien ]

Logistics play a big part in the ability to host outdoor exercises, especially when trying to follow the CDC recommendations. St. Petersburg’s the Body Electric Yoga Company used to hold pop-up yoga classes at breweries, hotel pools and parks.

But according to owner Katelyn Grady, they would have no system in place for limiting the amount of people if they did that right now, and she couldn’t imagine only 10 people from their usually large audience showing up to the events. The studio will continue to lead classes online as they prepare a “smart and thoughtful” plan for opening back up.

Beth Shaw of Clearwater started a mobile fitness business on the same day DeSantis announced gyms could reopen.

The trainer who works with triathletes had acquired a lot of donated equipment over the years. Not being able to work with clients in the gym, she got the idea to load them into a trailer and bring the gym to her clients.

Beth Shaw's mobile fitness business brings workouts to small groups.
Beth Shaw's mobile fitness business brings workouts to small groups. [ Courtesy of Beth Shaw ]

She started on May 15 with a small group, pulling into a friend’s driveway and leading a workout with kettlebells, barbells and bands, all of which she can sanitize.

After she posted about it on social media, people started to book her services. She doesn’t come out for individuals, only a minimum of five people. But she limits the groups to nine.

Beth Shaw's mobile fitness business brings workouts to small groups.
Beth Shaw's mobile fitness business brings workouts to small groups. [ Courtesy of Beth Shaw ]

Shaw said she has both worked and worked out at many gyms in the area. She’s currently training for a bodybuilding contest, so the new business model is beneficial for her, too.

“I’m not comfortable going back to a gym yet,” she said.

Shaw will come to your home with fitness equipment.
Shaw will come to your home with fitness equipment. [ Courtesy of Beth Shaw ]

For those opting to exercise outside instead of going back into a gym, are outdoor workouts safer?

We asked Dr. Marissa Levine, a professor and director of the center for leadership in public health practice at USF Health.

Generally, being outdoors is safer, she said. The virus is likely to dissipate and dilute quickly outside, especially if people maintain adequate separation.

“But, I have to emphasize that nothing has changed, we don’t have a treatment or a vaccine,” she said. “I would be really cautious that people don’t assume that just because you’re outside that you’re not going to catch it.”

That doesn’t mean Levine thinks people shouldn’t go outside. In fact, she thinks it’s good for mental health, particularly since many of us have been home more than usual these past couple months.

Levine said people should first identify what their individual risks are in terms of COVID-19, like their age and underlying health issues. Then, it’s important to maintain physical distance at all times, wear face coverings and practice proper hygiene, particularly if equipment is being shared.

Levine also said to consider that if you’re working out with people you don’t know well, you don’t know what they’ve been doing and who they have been around. They could have the virus and be asymptomatic and spread it. She emphasized the importance of face coverings for stopping the spread.

It’s good to be cautious, because there is still a lot we don’t know, she said.

“Make sure that you don’t assume that just because places are reopening that things are back to normal,” she said. “It’s a new normal that we all have to redefine and do our part to prevent the disease from coming back with a vengeance.”

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